THE SMILE OF THE DISPOSSESSED

Fadhi Janabi was tall and handsome and within a city struck by poverty he wore his clothes with an unusual elegance. His jacket was styled from photos in a French magazine and his mother had tailored it from material meant originally for Uncle Mukhtar’s wedding suit. Now, as he walked quickly down the littered Baghdad avenue, Fadhi asked his Uncle Mukhtar: “Who will it be who fires the bullet into my brain? What is the name of the man who will slice up my body as they did yours?”

The sun was weak and therefore pleasant as it crawled through the late Spring sky. Fadhi passed the mosque with the turquoise dome where a group of men dressed in long white dishdasha argued under a concrete shelter that soldiers used when there were disturbances in the city. The shrill voices of the men squabbling in their Baghdad accents were accentuated by their anger. Fadhi avoided their eyes and wished he too were wearing a grubby dishdasha and a headscarf, the long folds of which would allow him more cover in a city where eyes and voices were all subject to innuendo and open for interpretation. His clean white shirt was a beacon for the poor to assess and his mauve silk tie from Paris felt more like a noose.

Fear went crawling up his arms and into his face and hair and the sweat seeped out and left a patina of wet as if he had been drizzled on. At the next corner, under the dilapidated sign for a delicatessen that no longer contained its elite merchandise, stood two men dressed in the ill-fitting and shabby Western clothing of men confused by their class. Fadhi walked towards them as he stifled the urge to turn and go back up the street to his home and avoid the screening eyes and the dangers inherent in being different in a city of spies and hatreds. But to have turned would have invited even more suspicion than the cut of his suit or the Parisian tie or the clean shirt with the fashionable collar. Everything was a clue, a bright innuendo. He had the impulse to rip off his precious tie and throw it in the rubbish that stank in the gutter beside him as the full significance of his colleague’s accusation ripened and festered. Instead of turning left to arrive at Adam’s apartment house, he continued straight ahead to ensure he was not being followed there. At the tobacconists he paused as if to survey what merchandise there was in the window.

“There’s always tobacco under a dictatorship,” he thought. “Economic sanctions can’t disrupt the supply of nicotine.” Then he shook his head, drew in a deep breath and relaxed the muscles in his shoulders: “I’ll go mad if I don’t control this,” he thought. “God, please help me.” He turned and retraced his steps to the corner and walked quickly down the narrow side street and took the key from his pocket without checking if he were being followed because suddenly he didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Strength had entered him and he thanked God for the power of prayer and forgiveness. Nothing could get him, not the confusion of what was happening to him or his country, not the paranoia. He went up the stairs and called out: “Adam, it’s me, Fadhi.”

Adam Dawisha was twenty-seven, ten years younger than his lover. When Fadhi entered, he was in the kitchen heating coffee: “I knew you’d be here at exactly four,” he said, turning from the small gas appliance, and smiling at Fadhi. “I felt it in my heart.” The smell of coffee and the weak light sifting through the doors from the balcony that highlighted Adam’s body in his light blue dishdasha shifted the tensions within Fadhi. For a few seconds something akin to happiness wafted in him – delicate, sweet, beautiful – like a covering of icing sugar sifted over something bitter. The two men remained silent; in that moment there was nothing that needed to be said for it was all there between them, that essence, that feeling. The sweetness continued as the seconds ticked on the kitchen clock. As Fadhi traced the outline of Adam’s body through the diaphanous material he felt that familiar warm feeling slide through him.

“I did,” said Adam. “Here, in my heart.” Fadhi looked at his watch. It was exactly four in the afternoon, a time he would usually be at the university. They looked at each other, this news about the perfect timing further confirmation that their lives together was worth the subterfuge and the danger in this city that hated men like them. Then the reality of that requirement to hide what he really was and the danger of being exposed sprung back into Fadhi’s mind. A stab of fear pulsed in his temples and his forehead furrowed. The sweetness of the moment had vanished because the evil note that his colleague Fawzia Rahman had written him certified the dangers. Adam looked into Fadhi’s eyes and saw the dark world that inhabited his lover’s thinking, shadowy yet transparent, like reflections from facing mirrors. He was the professor of internal medicine, a man who had fought in the Kuwait war and received a medal for bravery. But what Adam saw behind those eyes was a look that betrayed his lover’s strength and intelligence.

From the apartment below the high pitch of a soprano’s melancholy voice entered the kitchen with snatches about love, loss and bitterness accompanied by the wail of oud and violins.

“Drink coffee,” Adam said in English. “Coffee is what you must have for feeling again strong and better.”

“Adam, I found this letter from Fawzia Rahman on my desk this morning,” Fadhi said in Arabic. “She…” From his pocket he pulled the envelope and handed it to his lover. The song ceased suddenly as if the soprano’s lamentations had been ended with the abruptness of a slit throat or an accurate bullet.

Adam looked at Fadhi, assessed his eyes and saw the full depth of the darkness in them and said in Arabic. “Drink your coffee first. If the news is that bad, then let’s have a few moments we can remember before this new onslaught.”

Together they went into the dimly lit living room. An uncle, an aunt, the four grandparents, all of them posed stiffly behind the thick dark frames of another era. Eyes that said there were secrets and passions and disasters and moments of sweet encounters stared out from their trapped world. The uncle had oiled hair and the sort of suit that a man of some means would have worn in the 1940s and the aunt’s spectacles and her frilly French lace collar indicated that she had been a member of the middle classes. The two lovers took no notice because the lessons in the ancestors’ eyes were engrained. What was atavistic and inherent was the act of living with volatility; the uncle had been ruined by the Zionists in Palestine and the aunt had perished from despair after fleeing their homeland. The room was otherwise tranquil: the potted aspidistra and the lace doilies and the soft light from the doors leading to the balcony. Then the multiple refrains from oud pierced the panes with the long sadness of such an orchestra and again the soprano wailed. Fadhi drained the bitter coffee and poured another from the copper pot in front of him; this time he sweetened it despite there being so little sugar available in the markets and the high cost, when you could find it. Fadhi’s eyes rested for a moment on those of Adam’s uncle, who had seen ruination in Palestine. “Read this,” he said handing the envelop to Adam.

Adam’s hands were long and elegant and the hairs grew lightly but very black up the shaft of each finger. For a few moments he toyed with the envelope in the knowledge that its contents would unsheathe drama. Then he looked to his grandparents for the strength he knew he needed: six dead Palestinians locked into history behind frames on a wall and their dead eyes alive and speaking to him.

“You travelled difficult roads,” Adam said, and Fadhi knew exactly to whom he was speaking and what he meant by it. It was a well-used refrain and the variations on it had matured the grandson’s thinking. The grandmother on the left, the one with the look of someone startled by the brutal ramifications of being colonised by the Chosen People, looked out with the same eyes as her grandson.

The grandmother on the far right, the one who had died on the morning of her arrival in Baghdad after a journey by foot and buses across the Transjordan with a suitcase of photos, gout medicine and an olive branch from their lost orchard, appeared to be crying. This is where strength was garnered from. It was strong and enduring and was applied to the grandson like tahina to hummus and it came out thick, rich and pungent. Adam plucked the green paper from the yellow envelope and cast his eyes down the Arabic script. He blinked three times, once for each sentence, and then folded the thin paper between his elegant fingers before sliding it delicately into the envelope: “She’ll kill us with this knowledge,” he said. “She’s completely evil.”

“She’s always known. She suspected,” said Fadhi in a low voice as if this room too was wired with the regime’s contraptions for spying on its citizens, as were the offices at his university. It was as if she were there in the room between them, Fawzia Rahman with her ideological intensity and its ability to destroy people.

“It’s my friendship with Adil at the university. She knows. The whole world knows. How can the whole world not know?” said Fadhi. He saw Adil mincing along a corridor in his tight-fitting pants and jacket. As Adil went to enter the doorway he turned and winked at Fadhi and that smug little smile of a man who can’t help himself from being effeminate crossed his lips and eyes and his whole face told everyone he was a queer, a man who didn’t have women but who himself was penetrated.

Fadhi stood up. Agitation replaced fear and tiredness and then that sensation was joined by the appropriate accompaniment of hatred. “Fawzia Rahman is the killer,” he said. “She’ll be the one to bring us to ruin. Fawzia Rahman. Fawzia Rahman.” The name slipped from his mouth as if lubricated with venom. “Look at me! They can tell! Look at me!” He shouted this time. Self-loathing was stronger than the fear of listening devices. Smart Western clothes, the ability to speak French and English. He was an accomplished person in a city of bedraggled people. He saw himself as others would and the picture was not sweetened by his sophistication. “They know because I was friends with Adil and Adil is an effeminate. A girl. Passive. They can see it in me when I walk and speak and…” He wanted to slap himself, to hit his head with his hands, but he held himself tightly and the black thoughts did the violence instead. The image of himself sniggering with Adil in the staff room with Fawzia Rahman and her colleagues watching them replayed in his mind. They all knew. Everyone was staring in wonder at him and Adil, all of them asking themselves why Professor Fadhi Janabi would be friends with someone like Adil, a mere technician, a pervert.

“But Adil will say nothing,” said Adam. Adam’s eyes were long, slightly slanted, very beautiful. The darkness in the lids and eyelashes and eyebrows was as if each had been tinted by kohl and not nature. The dark eyes staring down from his uncle’s countenance were those of his nephew and both sets of eyes displayed the same anguish at that moment. One man had been traumatised by the Zionists and his eyes showed the outrage of that injustice. The almond eyes staring from the face of the nephew showed a similar disturbance at the fate that might befall him.

“Adil disappeared a month ago,” said Adam.

“Which means he hasn’t said anything about us….” said Fadhi. “If he’s being tortured…”

“It might be that he decided to escape across the border and not tell anyone, you don’t know. He might not be a prisoner.” Adam’s eyes shifted back to his uncle’s as he saw Adil being cut up, his flesh flayed by sadists in Saddam’s jails. Adil was being tortured and they both knew it.

“Be strong, Adil…Be…” he said.

It was more a plea than a statement that Adam had uttered. He held his hands together as if beseeching their friend to say nothing to the authorities. He turned to look at his relatives on the wall behind him, each in their frame with their history deep in their faces. He thought how it would be beautiful to be freed from such reminders. But then that thought was evil, for there hanging on the wall was the sanctity of those who had to be vindicated. They were the last generation of Palestinians born before the Catastrophe and he looked at them as a man in a place of worship would at his religious symbols. His anguish for Adil shifted to strength and it emerged thick and strong in recognition of his grandparents’ struggles. He looked at his grandmother and she stared back at the grandson she had never known, her soft eyes filled with the lamentation of loss and betrayal.

Fadhi, in turn, was seeing the eyes of another female and he shivered at their intensity. Fawzia Rahman was always draped in a long black abbayah and she wore enormous round glasses, their lenses the colour and thickness of those green glass jars in which salted lemons were sold in the markets, her little squinty eyes tucked far away behind the dense lenses.

“How can she know about us?” Fadhi whispered. “How is she linked to Adil’s disappearance? Adil disappeared four weeks ago. Mohammad, we haven’t heard from since the sixteenth of December. That’s two friends who’ve gone missing and we know that Badr Ali Nasr was beaten up and so was his companion.”

Fadhi was standing by the balcony windows so that he was silhouetted, a black figure with his shoulders bent in worry. “We’re being targeted,” he said. “There’s a terror. The Kurds were poisoned. The Shi’a have been routed. Now men like us are being taken.”

“But everyone knows you’re a good citizen,” said Adam. They were silent for a minute while each digested the meaningless enormity of the words just spoken. Fadhi turned and met his lover’s eyes. The words held as much sustenance as a decomposed aubergine left unsold in the market. Rot had set in. Fadhi imagined the stallholder who had Saddam’s thick, dark, dyed moustache and the same unequivocally evil eyes and he was taking the rotten aubergine from amongst the healthy vegetables and tossing it in the rubbish.

“Don’t beat on hollow drums. Fawzia Rahman wants my position,” Fadhi admonished. “She wants me to leave.” He plucked at his jacket sleeve. The material had been purchased almost a decade earlier, just before his Uncle Mukhta’s murder. “If I just flee…or maybe…” It was too confusing to figure out the machinations possible in a society as thoroughly immersed in intrigues as this one. From the back of his throat he uttered a sad noise as his mind darkened further with a vision of Adil in a dungeon. No one was safe. His eyes turned to Adam, whom he saw being pulled from a jeep by thugs and marched into the desert. The men, each dressed in a black uniform, were pushing Adam before them. Then, at the last moment, just before Adam’s execution, they began laughing because they realised they had forgotten something fun. Fadhi put his hands to his eyes. The horror of what he knew occurred in Saddam’s prisons was there in his mind and for seconds he even heard the rapists’ laughter.

“The evidence?” said Adam. “Where is their evidence about us being queers?” He looked about him but received no relief to his question, just the eyes of his dead relatives forever looking down at him with their respective secrets exposed: the grandparents who had been exiled in their minds and bodies; Auntie who had simply dropped dead from exhaustion after traipsing from the Levant through the Transjordan.

“Evidence?” asked Fadhi. Self-loathing returned, a huge sweep of it like an oil slick bubbling to the desert’s surface: a smart Western suit; the tie from Paris; the elegant shoes which had cost him two months’ wages. He cringed at the thought of his hair always so neat and styled. He saw himself in the street with the two shabby men under the delicatessen sign sneering. “Evidence,” Fadhi said quietly. “Even my prayer beads are elegant. How can I disguise my proclivity? How can I live in this society?”

“You fought in Kuwait. You were a sergeant, a decorated one. Put on your war medal. You are protected. Who could suspect? Adil wasn’t a real man. Adil went to the parks at night to meet truck drivers and soldiers. He was a real queer, an effeminate. He was seen. All of those who have disappeared were known. We have never…How? Who? We are masculine. What would they know about…about…you…about us?” Adam heard his own questions answered with the precision of a quick slap like those administered to traitors and enemies of the state in police dungeons. The state eventually heard and saw everything. It was just a matter of time before they told you what you had eaten for dinner. He looked about his living room for evidence of where devices could be hidden: there were three antique occasional tables that an aunt had left when she emigrated to Canada in 1980; a faded linen lounge suite; an old Chinese vase which must have been worth something when there was still money about to buy such adornments. The woven carpets had been sold off already and he looked at the bare floor where they had once lain as testaments to at least some degree of wealth. A listening device could be attached anywhere, even under a floor board. There were tiny ones that could fit under a carpet, in a vase, inside a picture frame. This was the rumour. Listening bugs the size of a pinhead. He eyed the electricity meter above the doorframe. Then the sweat beaded on his forehead. A drop slid over his eyelid and defied his lashes and stung his eye as he wiped at it. Who would know? How would they have found out? But these were naïve questions in a dictatorship. The electricity box was a perfect location for a listening device. The meter man came every six weeks. He had read the meter only ten days ago, a new man whom Adam had not recognised: slim, strong, a big black moustache, very handsome, a smile that showed white teeth.

“My God, he was a spy in my house, it’s my death warrant,” Adam said.

“What? Who?” asked Fadhi.

“Nothing. Nothing,” said Adam, thinking back about how attracted he was to the man and how he had flirted with him. “Go and see Commander Sadar. He can help us. Tell him to get you protection.”

The names of the disappeared men made a staccato sound in Fadhi’s mind as he saw himself begging piteously for protection in his old friend’s office with a portrait of Saddam Hussein in the background. “But the political situation is…” he stammered.

“No more political interpretations,” said Adam. When he became angry, he stomped his foot. He did it two times and then picked up the coffee pot and went into the kitchen. “It’s too late for that,” he said in his halting English. They liked to speak French or English together in order to practise the languages that benefited them. “We know what will be the outcomes. The politics is what kills us.” But he returned to Arabic because he needed the fluency to rush through with the horror of what had happened. “The neighbours three houses down, the Abdullas, have been evicted. It’s their own house. How can you be evicted from a house that you have owned for five generations?”

“The Abdullas? The lawyer?” asked Fadhi.

“The lawyer Abdulla. Yesterday at nine in the morning the Military Police came and told them to get out of their own house. And the old mother, she’s half dead and when they shouted and complained, the police pushed in and the Abdullas were evicted from a house they owned. Why? Why? Two hours to get out. They didn’t even get all of the furniture. How can you, after living there for a hundred years? And today some mullah moved in with his family and Laila Abdulla was struck in the face because she screamed at them and then when she didn’t shut up the police took her away. And Adnan Abdulla is a member of the ruling party.” Adam clamped his long thin fingers to his cheeks and opened his eyes even wider.

It had come to this. You went to the mosque. You believed in the scriptures. You did what the regime required and did not openly ask questions. But it had come to this. Fadhi leaned against the sofa. He looked around the room that had gradually become more and more depleted of its adornments as they were sold off for food and water and medicine. But he couldn’t think what he wanted. His arid mind could not sluice through such abstractions. Not after having played the game so well for so many decades, for being a good citizen. They had even trusted him to study in France. That was an enormous concession for an individual under this regime. And he had returned. He had not sought exile in Europe but had come back to his country and had been awarded the professorship. He had been born and bred and nurtured here, he had fought in Kuwait for Iraq. So why this change? He braced himself against the sofa and cried noiselessly while the sounds of cups being washed came from the kitchen.

For a moment he was tempted to have a cigarette as he studied the Chinese vase on the table, the pride of Adam’s mother and something which she had declared would never be sold no matter if they were all to die of starvation. He saw himself lifting it and smashing it over Fawzia Rahman’s shrouded head. He followed her black bulk with his eyes as she fell bleeding and hysterical beneath him and grovelled there begging for mercy. Indeed, he knew revenge. He went to the window and pulled aside the curtains and looked out at the bleak flat city succumbing to darkness. If he were to seek help, it would be through revenge, through humiliation, death even. But such a fate would not be his or Adam’s.

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